Call it the year Santa Rosa embraced Santa Claus – or rather, the year downtown retailers discovered the jolly ol’ elf was a great salesman.

In the days before Christmas 1913, Santa invaded the advertising in the Press Democrat. The full page ad for the White House department store (shown below) had no less than four Santas, which was about the headcount seen in all ads in any year prior. Why the population explosion in 1913?

It wasn’t as if Santa was suddenly linked to the concept of Christmas presents. During the Christmas of 1910 advertisements urged shoppers to come downtown and have fun buying gifts. The part of the White House ad below with Santa leaning on his knuckles first appeared that year, and another 1910 store proclaimed it was “The Real Home of Santa Claus.” Kids back then were also clued in to making want lists; in 1908 tykes picked up the telephone and asked the operator to connect “Santy Claus.” The PD reported the telephone office didn’t know what to do at first but soon decided the “Hello Girls” should become Santa’s little helpers, with the chief operator taking down names and list details (and no, their parents were not required to first sign two-year service agreements).

Those pre-1913 Santas are also sometimes hard to recognize. He was less roly-poly than we expect today (the guy in the White House ad was pretty buff) and was more like Father Christmas of 19th century England. He rarely smiled in the earlier ads and even appeared a little grumpy; in this Keegan Brothers ad he looks stooped and damn tired of hauling that bag down chimneys, as if he were just an oddly-dressed workingman in the delivery business. (The caption should have read “At Your Service” and was corrected in later versions.) So another change in 1913 was that Santa was happier as well.

It would be easy to presume Santa received a 1913 makeover by a Madison Avenue advertising agency and everyone followed suit, but that’s not the case. It would be many years later, in 1931, before Coca-Cola would forever transform Santa into the iconic image we all know today. Instead, he evolved in the 1910s and 1920s into a ruddy obese fellow without any firm ownership. A personal favorite is the 1923 ad for White Rock soda water showing Santa apparently reading letters from children with his nose as red as his cheeks, having polished off half a bottle of bourbon. Note that his trash basket is overflowing with tossed-out Christmas lists and also note the year 1923 was during Prohibition. Are YOU gonna confront Mr. Claus when he’s being naughty? I think not.

The mystery of Santa Rosa’s Santa ads only deepens when compared to the big Bay Area newspapers where Santa was almost a no-show. In San Francisco and Oakland the holiday shopping ads usually just showed the merchandise if there was any illustration at all. Never did any of the Santas found in the PD appear there.

Among the California newspapers with online archives (a pretty small number, admittedly) the only papers which were similarly Santa-clogged came from Modesto and Santa Ana – towns which were very much like Santa Rosa: Mid-sized rural county seats with a few department stores. Their department stores ads even used most of the exact same Santa illustrations as our department stores, demonstrating it was stock art provided by the manufacturers (free, undoubtedly) to dress up ads in these smaller markets.

Instead of pushing specific stuff or a sale, the mission of these 1913 Santas was simply to get your warm body into those local department stores. It was by no means assured customers would be going to those merchants anyway; as shown in the article about Christmas 1910, they were competing with hardware stores which advertised “practical” gifts. Hopefully if the holiday shopper could be lured through the door of Rosenberg’s, Dibble’s or one of the other places, a new galvanized wash tub would no longer seem to be an appealing present.

No discussion of Christmas in 1913 Santa Rosa would be complete without mentioning the 800 lb. gorilla in the room – or rather, the Godzilla-like Santa that appeared on the front page of the Press Democrat on Dec. 25. Taking up half of the front page, the cartoon illustrated a story about the PD’s Christmas Exchange, which was the annual holiday gift drive for needy kids. Here Santa teeters unsteadily as little two-dimensional creatures tug at his hand and gift sack. His blank expression makes you wonder if he had way too many of those bourbon and White Rock sodas before coming to the party.

Read More



The little item in a 1912 Press Democrat was a puzzler. A man in upstate New York had written about seeing a poster that read:

Coming to Plattsburg–An Official Exhibit from Napa, Lake, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, just north of San Francisco Bay, in California, with a monster elephant Shark 36 feet long, weight 10,383 pounds, 460 years old. Also an octopus or devil fish; a California ostrich, and one thousand curiosities from Land and Sea.

It was no hoax; that was part of an ad for an official exhibit traveling the Midwest and East Coast between 1909 and 1915, supposedly introducing hundreds of thousands to the agricultural wonders of Sonoma and other North Bay counties. It never toured in the West and was rarely mentioned in any of the local newspapers; probably only a small number of people here knew about it at all, unless Aunt Myrtle from Altoona visited her Santa Rosa relatives and begged to see an ostrich ranch. And although it was a pricey operation to maintain, probably none of the groups writing checks to support the promotion thousands of miles away realized how damned strange it really was.

Our story began in San Francisco during the 1880s, where “Mon” Leak was president of the very successful Leak Glove Manufacturing Co. Before joking that “Leak Glove” seems like a really poor choice for a company name, understand he came from a family with a history of really poor names choices; not only was Mon’s full monicker “Mondula” but his father was Crapo Leak, having changed his surname as a young man from “Lake.” Perhaps he was unclear which part brought such mirth to sniggering children.

Mon exploited the odd family name in his other business, the Leak Advertising Company. Curious why horse water troughs all over Los Angeles had “Leaks” painted on the side, a reporter tracked down Mon for an 1890 interview and learned he had crews running about painting every available fence, wall or water trough with his name or an ad for one of his six clients. He was something of a advertising genius, insofar as recognizing he could blanket a city with a platoon of low-paid sign painters cranking out the same few ads in a kind of mass production.

(RIGHT: The Leak railcars as seen in newspaper ads from 1909-1915)

It’s likely Mon got the idea for both businesses from his father. The 1860 census lists Crapo as a painter in Johnstown, NY which is next door to Gloversville, where almost everyone in town had some job in the glove-making trade during the 19th century. Crapo was also awarded an 1890 patent for an improved sewing machine part that would make it easier to stitch things like gloves and a couple of years later Mon followed his poppa’s lead again, this time getting his own patent on a railway car outfitted to haul around a crew of painters, with hinged bedding platforms that folded up during the day allowing it to be used to demonstrate advertiser’s products and hand out samples. Best of all it had its own generator, allowing the train car to be brightly lit both inside and out by dozens of light bulbs. It must have caused quite a sensation in the 1890s when the shebang pulled into a rural community where electricity was still something of a novelty. Again, he was kind of a genius.

Here I must interrupt Mondula’s tale to fill in some of the research backstory. When I first read that Press Democrat item I presumed it was a gag – either someone was spoofing the PD or editor Ernest Finley was presenting a “quaint” to give readers a laugh (for more, read “That Can’t be True“). But when I Googled on that odd detail of precisely “10,383 pounds,” I was gobsmacked to find ads that almost exactly matched the item, and through Ben Truwe’s rich archive “Southern Oregon History, Revised” I was introduced to the crafty Mr. Leak. His essay, “Mondula Leak and the Sign on the Wall” provides details which are just sketched here, particularly concerning the years before and after Mon was promoting the North Bay. There are photos of Mon, diagrams of the railcars, the legend of the lucky beans and much more. It’s a good read.

Sources found by Ben Truwe state the luxe railcar cost $30,000 (about $750 thousand today) but it wouldn’t be built until 1891, when Mon landed a sustaining backer: The county of Placer. For five hundred bucks a month, Mon painted “Placer County on Wheels” on the side. Locals visiting the train were shown a gold-flecked rock, Placer County fruit and told what a swell place it was. That, however, was in addition to his regular promotions. An Oregon paper described what awaited those lured in by free hot popcorn and peanuts: “People were admitted to the car and served hot chocolate as an advertisement for the house that manufactures the cocoa, and then after examining the display they were ushered out the other end of the car carrying armloads of samples of baking powder, newspapers, cocoa, germea, axle grease, etc.”

Mon and his wife, Hannah, had a private room at one end but the rest of the train car must have been crowded at nights, with about two dozen men sleeping on their retractable bunks. Besides all the painters there was a bookkeeper, stenographer, electrician and cook. (Did I mention the car also had a coal oil stove which was used in cooking demos? And after a few years of living on the rails he was granted a couple of more patents dealing with food storage on a train.)

There were no further mentions of the painters after 1892, so presumably Mon shut down that side of his operations. No one could blame him; it must have been quite a headache. Besides being in close quarters with so many men for so long there was the logistical problems of running that kind of business from a train in an era when telephones were rare. Mon had no locomotive, so there were ongoing scheduling needs to arrange for the Leak patented car and their baggage car to be hooked up to trains on different railroads. Seeking permissions to paint a fence or side of a barn probably required a savvy advance man, and there had to be a local manager to arrange transit for the painters and handle other services. And while playing California Ambassador would be fun, playing nursemaid to twenty guys with the flu in a rail car without a toilet, would not.

The three-year deal with Placer County ended in 1894 and the train became “Santa Clara County on Wheels” in short order, which it would remain for more than a decade. The major change was that besides county ag products, Mon was only pushing “Schilling’s Pure California Wines” (a San Francisco dealer who relabeled a wide variety of wines produced all over California). Gone were the days when visitors lumbered away with armloads of baking powder, axle grease, etc.

Then in 1897, a single sentence was added to the end of his usual newspaper blurb: “Another car, to which a small admission fee is charged, contains a whale.”

Um, a whale from land-locked Santa Clara County? Well, sure, why not; the premise for the exhibit was that visitors wouldn’t know squat about California. Later ads mentioned it was caught in Monterey Bay, but who is Oshkosh knew Monterey Bay wasn’t in Santa Clara (or Placer, for that matter). And besides, Mon wasn’t claiming it was from the sponsoring county, so it wasn’t his fault if people jumped to the wrong assumption. Right?

Truwe’s history web site offers transcriptions of many ads and articles over the following years showing how things devolved. The whale was rechristened a “monster elephant shark” (it was actually a basking shark) and it began eating up more of the attention; San Jose peaches and prunes were no match to gazing down the yawning maw of a shark that seemingly could swallow you up in a gulp.

Soon ads referred to the second car as the “California Marine Museum” and besides the shark weighing precisely 10,383 pounds (“large enough to feed a multitude of people”) papers said there were “many other rare specimens of marine monsters, such as a man-eating shark, weighing 460 pounds, sea angel or flying shark, sea sturgeon, baboon fish.” Another write-up promised “a monkey-faced owl, an alligator and several monkeys, alive.” For a while there was an X-ray machine, where “one can see the bones in his hands and arms.” It must have been quite the letdown to move to the next train car and find yourself facing a pile of big sugar beets that are supposed to be impressive because.

It was free to see the fruit, but if you wanted to enter the other car with the zoo/freak show “a small admission fee of 10 cents is charged to keep out objectionable characters.” Later it would bump up to 25¢ which was worth about six bucks today, but that’s not a fair comparison; a quarter was the price of premium entertainment – a ticket to the circus or a decent seat at a very good vaudeville theater.

Starting in 1905 the sponsor changed to Stanislaus County, but by then mention of the county was cursory in newspaper ads. The shark was always the headliner, with side attractions including a live alligator (!) a California ostrich (presumably stuffed) and “Peruvian Cavies” (guinea pigs) which he called, “the cutest little animals known of.” Every visitor was given a souvenir, such as a sea shell or lucky bean. And about that: Before the train arrived the local papers often ran a paid story placement about the time his “old sailor friend Seth” was spared by savage South Sea cannibals once they saw he had a rare and sacred sea bean. With that tall tale, it can be said Mondula Leak had fully embraced his inner P. T. Barnum.

From the 1909 Ukiah papers we find word that Mon had signed a contract with the North Bay Counties Association, a kind of super Chamber of Commerce across five counties (in 1925 it morphed into the Redwood Empire Association, growing to nine counties including Josephine in Oregon). To the exhibit was now added “the creations of Luther Burbank” – apparently just spineless cactus – and redwood bark. The souvenir was usually a “novelty made of the California Big Trees”, a pampas plume (then grown commercially around Santa Barbara) or a lucky bean, “People of North of Bay Counties Hope to Please You,” chirped a frequent tagline in the ads.

The contributions from all our local Chambers and trade groups added up to $400-600 per month, but that money was just cake icing; with an admission of 25¢ (15¢ for kids) and several hundred visitors a day, their take must have been around $5,000/mo. Presume the Leaks lived well.

What they needed from the counties, however, was the cloak of legitimacy. With miscellaneous ag products displayed under county and state banners, it could be claimed the exhibit was “educational;” otherwise, it was just oddities better belonging in a carnival sideshow. Some communities even might have banned them.

But here’s the interesting question: Did anyone in the North Bay – or before then, anyone in Stanislaus or Santa Clara counties – know the main attraction was not their lovely produce, but instead a stuffed shark?

(RIGHT: A 1915 ad from near the end of the North Bay promotion)

Three articles in San Rafael and Ukiah papers from 1909 and 1910 offered lengthy reviews of the exhibit culled from midwestern newspapers, undoubtedly provided by Mon Leak. Not one of them mentioned the shark or any other of the curiosities, although every other review found in online historical papers prominently mentions the animal displays, often describing them in detail. One can only assume Mon edited the reviews or wrote them himself to keep his patrons in the dark.

The North Bay promotion ended in 1915, and next up was “Georgia on Wheels.” (Yes, there was still “a monstrous shark,” but its California origin was apparently dropped.) This tour was short lived. The national railway system was near standstill with its heaviest traffic in history because of the run-up to WWI. Also, Mon was now 65.

In 1917 he reinvented himself again, this time turning his advertising model upside down. If he could no longer bounce from town to town, he would stay in one place and expect the towns to come to him via the “Southeastern Exhibit Association,” with its year-round display of Georgia products (no mention of any sharks, though). Announcing their four-story exhibit hall in downtown Atlanta, Mon boasted to a reporter his field organization built a network of enthusiastic supporters eager to promote the state. Unfortunately, when he retired two years later, leadership passed to Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Clarke is credited with reshaping the Klan via a greatly expanded, dues-paying membership – in other words, he followed Mon Leak’s Association model, using a field organization to build a network of enthusiastic supporters eager to promote hate.

Mon and Hannah retired to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he died in 1924. That’s the end of the story, except for several Believe-it-or-Not angles.

His mother, Caroline, was actually the most famous member of the family, being the key witness in the sensational murder trial of Theodore Durrant, an 1895 San Francisco serial killer dubbed “The Demon of the Belfry.” His poppa, Crapo, returned to his old stomping grounds around Gloversville, New York, where he was arrested in 1896 for “enticing young girls into his place for immoral purposes.” Crapo was running a “disorderly house,” according to the local papers, which was usually a polite way of saying it was a brothel. When he was sentenced to five years in prison for abduction all the newspapers in the area called him a “notorious divekeeper.”

And then there was our famous shark; to my astonishment, I was able to discover its origins. Before Mon whipped up that stupid lucky bean story, he used to pay newspapers to print his item about how the shark was caught:

Yesterday as Captain Emanuel Feress of the fishing smack Garibaldi was about to tack and sail for port he had an adventure with a monster shark that the crew will long remember. They had turned toward shore when a commotion commenced in the water, and instantly the ropes holding the net tightened and the smack started off at a rapid gait, the waves washing over the deck. The crew were thoroughly frightened and wanted to cut loose, but Captain Feress kept cool and ordered them to stand ready for whatever it was that had hold of them, and for half an hour no one knew what was going to happen. They could see nothing, but they were going away, and some invisible power had hold of the boat. Then a big black object came suddenly to the top, jumping clear out of the water, trying to loosen himself, then started for the shore, and soon had run into the bar and the tide left him high and dry, and they could then see what it was that had nearly scared the life out of them, a monster shark measuring 36 feet, the largest anyone on this coast had ever seen.

That story supposedly first appeared in the Monterey Herald on April 20, but the year kept slipping forward; in his earliest account it happened in 1887, then 1895, then 1905. But while every single detail was a lie, he did tell the truth about the date at the beginning: It was caught in April of 1887. That was ten years before Mon Leak began hauling it around the country, and when he stopped showing it off the shark had been dead for thirty years.

I could not find out what happened to the shark – likely it went off to a Georgia carnival, saloon or a collector with lots of space over his mantle – but I’m sure Mondula hated to sell. It had inspired nightmares for countless kids, but once upon a time it had inspired a glove maker to become a kind of showman.


Very Like a Whale.

A very large shark was towed into port yesterday by the San Vicente. It was caught in Monterey Bay by the fishing steamer U. S. Grant. It is about thirty-five feet long, measures twenty feet in circumference and weighs nearly five tons. When the huge carcass was brought alongside the wharf it was with considerable difficulty hoisted on a large dray drawn by six horses and taken to Central Park, where it is now on exhibition.

– Daily Alta California, April 29, 1887
Renders the Existence of Policeman Fitzhenry Unhappy

Policeman Fitzhenry filed a complaint yesterday with the Board of Health against the proprietors of the shark that was captured near Monterey last week, and whose cadaver is now on exhibition in a tent at Central Park. As the monster weighs more than five tons and is fully thirty feet long, such a mass of putrescent blubber is offensive to the nose of Policeman Fitzhenry. A posse of reporters inspected the remains yesterday afternoon, and instead of being nauseated by the decomposition of cold shark meat were fumigated with carbolic acid as thoroughly as to pass muster even with the new  Board of Health.

– Daily Alta California, May 3, 1887
Eastern Relative Sends Santa Rosans Copy of Startling Announcement in New York

A card from Jos. Kellogg, brother of F. H. and Chas. Kellogg of Santa Rosa, instructor in agriculture at Cornell University, and who is now putting in his vacation in a walking tour through the New England States, reports that in Plattsburg, New York, he found the inhabitants considerably stirred by posters all over the town bearing the following legend:

“Coming to Plattsburg–An Official Exhibit from Napa, Lake, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, just north of San Francisco Bay, in California, with a monster elephant Shark 36 feet long, weight 10,383 pounds, 460 years old. Also an octopus or devil fish; a California ostrich, and one thousand curiosities from Land and Sea.”

– Press Democrat, August 11, 1912

Read More


Good news, Sonoma County! There are now two power companies competing to sell electricity. Sure, rates are about the same for most customers, but there’s more to the decision than who offers slightly cheaper volts. One of the companies doesn’t just want your business – it wants your love and respect. The company wants you to know it shares your values. The company wants to advise you on how to use energy wisely. The company is being run by your neighbors and if there’s anything, anything at all you don’t like about the service the company wants to listen to your complaint. The company wants you to be happy.

The company trying so hard to cuddle up to you is PG&E. Welcome to 1912.

Up to that point, there had been a rocky relationship between the county and PG&E and its various predecessors. Electrical service was crazy unreliable; the company superintendent for the county was called before an angry Board of Supervisors in 1908, where he told them he hated the situation as much as anyone else but there was nothing he could do. Sometimes his boss in Napa ordered him to shutdown for no apparent reason at all. Part of the problem was the entire North Bay was powered by a single transmission line from the Sierras; the situation only became marginally better after Snow Mountain, a much smaller hydroelectric plant on the Eel River began selling PG&E some juice for the local grid (see: “ Everybody Hates the Electric Company“).

But everything changed that June when the Railroad Commission (forerunner to the Public Utilities Commission) granted permission for another company to extend electrical service into Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties. The commission specifically cited Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sebastopol as being poorly served by PG&E. Exactly two weeks later, the first of a continuing series of large feel-good PG&E ads began appearing in both Santa Rosa newspapers. “‘PACIFIC SERVICE’ means ‘PERFECT SERVICE’ always AT YOUR SERVICE” read the ad. (Note to self: Cryptic “slogans” are always IMPROVED BY ODD capitalization and quotes.)

The competition came from an outfit called the Great Western Power Co. – more on their story below. Unlike today’s “Sonoma Clean Power,” Great Western was an actual competitor to PG&E, setting poles along streets to carry their own electricity across their own power lines directly to homes and businesses.

Great Western’s arrival was no great surprise. Months before commission approval, the company penned a tentative deal with the city of Santa Rosa to take over street lighting. For the same price PG&E had been charging for service, Great Western would expand the system to “light up the most remote sections of the city,” according to the Press Democrat. From Railroad Square to McDonald avenue there would be no less than 217 electric bulbs burning all night. This represented a very big deal. “Santa Rosa will be the best lighted city of its size on the Pacific Coast when the present system is completed,” the PD quoted a Great Western official.

At the same time, PG&E salesmen were swooping over Santa Rosa trying to lock residential and business users into multi-year contracts. “It is said the solicitors have met with a cool reception and find very few business men or property holders who desire to place any obstacle in the way of the new company coming here,” noted the Press Democrat.

Once the Railroad Commission gave the go-ahead, Great Western raced into Sonoma county. In just a month they erected 1,600 power poles in Santa Rosa alone, not to mention transmission lines from Vallejo to Napa to Petaluma. Crews were at work constantly, including Sundays. And exactly a month to the day from approval, at 10 o’clock on the evening of July 20, 1912, they threw the switch. Santa Rosa lit up like a diamond, a jeweled city newly borne into the Twentieth Century. “Almost with the word the current of 22,000 volts was heard in the transformers and sparks of light were visible at contact points, while a small circuit of incandescent lights in the substation lighted the place brilliantly.” It really must have been something to see.

In response, PG&E made minimal and overdue improvements in its service. The company extended electric service to Bennett Valley and brought gas lines to the subdivisions south of Santa Rosa Creek. They upgraded the coal gas plant on First street to minimize the stink and pollution. “The new smoke consumer at the plant will do away entirely with the great clouds of smoke seen floating over the city whenever gas is being made,” reported the PD.

PG&E also matched Great Western’s lower rates and offered its electricians for hire as contractors to wire homes, with the work to be paid on an installment plan. One wonders how many people took them up on that offer, at least in Santa Rosa; while electricity was expensive, it had been available since 1888 (two years before that in Petaluma). Surely every home within range of the power lines had some wiring by the late date of 1912 unless the house was very old and the owner very poor. Nothing of this program was further mentioned in the local newspapers.

At least the house wiring advertisement offered a tangible service; most of PG&E’s ads at the time simply tried to push the message, “please don’t hate our guts.”

“Are You Satisfied?” read the headline of one ad. “Perhaps you are not entirely satisfied with ‘Pacific Service’ — you may have a grievance against the Company. If so, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell us about it. The person who is continually nursing a grouch is harboring a bad enemy.”

On Thanksgiving, PG&E offered a little essay which included giving thanks for the “comforts and conveniences” that Americans enjoyed, including “well-lighted homes” and “brilliantly illuminated streets.” Of course, those streets were now being illuminated by their competitors because PG&E did a lousy job of it in previous years, but maybe they hoped Santa Rosans had a short memory.

In this period PG&E also ran ads for their gas service that leaned even heavier on the clunky “Pacific Service” slogan. These ads targeted women – specifically promoting gas ranges as being more convenient, easier to use and cleaner than cooking over a coal or wood stove – and sometimes wandered awkwardly into the theme of women’s rights. “Freedom for Women,” was one headline. “King GAS RANGE issues the proclamation freeing female subjects hereafter and forever from the drudgery of household servitude. COOK WITH GAS and be free.” Read that again and try to understand the copy writer was trying to be funny and clever.

The Great Western Power Company presented hardly any advertisements in 1912, seeing as both Santa Rosa papers wrote articles about a big promotion they ran. During “electrical week” the public was invited to see all the latest electric appliances, gizmos and doodads. The Press Democrat offered a list (my fave is the “combined cigar lighter and lamp for automobiles”):

Among the many electrical appliances for use in homes which may be seen in operation and their workings thoroughly explained may be mentioned the electrical range, electrical vacuum sweeper, washing machine with wringer attached, coffee percolators, bread toasters, egg boilers, curling irons, chafing dishes, tea Samover [sic], irons, combined cigar lighter and lamp for automobiles, and Ozonator which purifies the air, etc.

Taken together, all of these power company ads and related news articles provide a great deal of new information about life in 1912 Santa Rosa. Now we know how brightly lit the town was at night, including the detail of Great Western’s 12-foot electric sign with lights running “mouse style” outside their office at the corner of Fourth and D streets. We now have a better idea of the air pollution from the gas plant on First street. And it may be a trivial thing, but we now know that the motor vehicle seen at right was called an “auto truck” – as discussed earlier, it wasn’t clear how quickly the present meaning of the word “truck” evolved.

(RIGHT: Great Western Power Company truck in Los Angeles, c.1910. Photo courtesy the USC Digital Library)

 Most valuable of all were the electrical rates, published for the first time. Today for about 500 total kWh we pay a little over 12 cents per kWh; in 1912 it was a nickel. Thus adjusted for inflation that’s $1.24 in 2015 dollars, or nearly ten times more than we are now paying. Still, that was a quite a deal compared to 1905, when electrical service was more than 25 times what it is now.

Great Western’s rate sheet also shows how they expected to make a profit. Their residential service was priced the same as PG&E and commercial service was a little higher overall. But once a business guaranteed to hit a minimum goal of usage the cost began to drop sharply. Just as “electrical week” encouraged consumers to buy gadgets to use more electricity, a store might now leave the showroom windows illuminated all night at little extra cost.

By the end of 1912 Santa Rosa looked much different than it had a year earlier, all thanks to Great Western, a company most Santa Rosans probably had never heard of until that year. What was this upstart company that transformed the town?

When the Great Western Power Company muscled its way into Sonoma county in 1912, the corporation was only ten years old. As recently as 1909 its name was mostly unknown outside the utility industry, seemingly destined to be another wholesale electricity seller to PG&E like a larger version of Snow Mountain.


Search the books on California history and you’ll find little about Edwin T. Earl; his key role in the formation of the Great Western Power Co. is almost completely forgotten – as is his involvement in the greatest controversy in modern state history.

E. T. Earl (1858-1919) is mostly known today for being publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Express and later the L.A. Tribune, newspapers with enormous influence in Southern California between the turn of the century and World War I. Earl’s papers were the voice of the reform and progressive movement as it grew in strength, and served as the counterbalance to the anti-union Los Angeles Times and Hearst’s yellow-journalism Examiner. Thanks to his papers, Southland voters made progressive Hiram Johnson governor in 1910 and thanks partly to Earl’s personal assurance he would carry the state, Teddy Roosevelt made his “Bull Moose” run for president two years later.

Newspapering and playing political kingmaker was Edwin Earl’s mid-life career change; he made his fortune in the fruit packing business, having invented and patented in 1890 an improved design for refrigerated rail cars that allowed California oranges to make the 16-day trip to the East Coast. He sold the company to Armour in 1900 for today’s equivalent of a half-billion dollars, allowing him to buy the newspapers, swing the Great Western Power Co. deal and stand near the pinnacle of top Southern California investors.

But the most controversial episode in his history is rarely mentioned and remains poorly understood: He was part of the San Fernando Mission Land Company syndicate. Books have been written about the sleazy origins of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (not to mention the great movie, Chinatown) but Earl’s role has escaped scrutiny.

Debate still rages to the degree of active conspiracy and/or collusion between city officials and a wide range of promoters, from investors to the Chamber of Commerce to the newspapers. Briefly: At the turn of the century Los Angeles coveted the water in the fertile Owens Valley, over 200 miles east on the other side of the San Fernando Valley. While Owens Valley water rights were being chipped away by a federal regulator tied to pro-development interests in Los Angeles, a group of speculators were buying options on land in the San Fernando Valley. The last federal barrier protecting Owens Valley water was removed in a private 1904 meeting between city officials and their friendly regulator, and less than a week later the speculators incorporated as the Mission Land Company, with rights to buy over 16 thousand acres for $35 each. When Los Angeles announced the bond to build the aqueduct through the San Fernando Valley seven months later, those real estate values increased tenfold overnight and would double or triple again before the aqueduct was finished.

With all newspapers except Hearst’s pushing for the aqueduct and fear-mongering that Los Angeles was in a serious drought (1905 was actually an unusually wet year), voters approved of the bond and another one in 1907. After that San Fernando Valley land prices skyrocketed, enriching the Mission Land Company syndicate – yet without irony a 1911 editorial in Earl’s evening Tribune decried “certain rich men” were building fortunes by selling Valley land on speculation. How much Earl profited and the degree of his personal involvement is unknown, but the only known time aqueduct mastermind William Mulholland discussed the land syndicates he distanced himself from all investors except Earl. The aqueduct company was even located in the same building as Earl’s own offices – which was either intentional or a truly remarkable coincidence, given downtown Los Angeles was then chockablock in high-rise office space.

The company began as sort of a fluke. In the early 1880s a geology student named Julius M. Howells was a member of a party exploring the Mt. Lassen region. They came across the north fork of the Feather River flowing through a big meadow – appropriately named, “Big Meadows.” Fast forward two decades: California was clamoring for more electrical power and small hydroelectric dams were popping up like spring weeds. Howells was now a civil engineer of no great repute; his greatest achievement was building an earthen dam in San Diego that converted a duck pond into a small reservoir (it’s now Lake Murray and still popular with ducks). Howells remembered the powerful river and Big Meadows and thought it would be an ideal spot for a really big dam, so he pitched the idea to Edwin T. Earl.

Why he reached out to Earl in 1901 is the first mystery of the story. While Earl was fabulously rich (see sidebar) he had no experience with massive building projects, plus he had just purchased a Los Angeles newspaper to reinvent himself as a liberal version of William Randolph Hearst. Maybe it was all that money burning a hole in his pocket, but Earl was intrigued. He talked it over with his brother Guy – a practicing Oakland attorney who also lacked any relevant experience but had social connections to San Francisco’s wealth – and they decided to cautiously move ahead. Over the next few months an agent of theirs (the moonlighting Oakland city auditor) bought options on about 15,000 acres in Big Meadows and an adjoining valley, misleading locals to believe that he was representing a wealthy rancher planning to build a cattle spread of epic size.

Once those deals were sealed, Howells was sent there to claim the water rights under the archaic rules carried over from the Gold Rush days. On a tree near the location of the future dam, he nailed a sign claiming 100,000 inches of the river for almost all uses including “generation of electrical power.”

Afterwards he rode a couple of miles downstream and found a couple of men posting their own sign claiming electrical power rights. Howell had noticed them on the same train he had taken from San Francisco because they were wearing the sort of high-laced boots favored by surveyors and engineers. Because the water rules were “prior in time, prior in right,” a race followed to see who could first register their claim at the Plumas county seat. Perhaps because he had the advantage of knowing the terrain, Howells filed his papers forty minutes ahead of the other guys.

Now that they had the land and water rights, they seemed unsure what to do with it. Even Earl’s fortune wasn’t enough for a project of this magnitude and the brothers approached the forerunner to PG&E, offering to sell the whole package. The company turned them down – it was too big and risky a deal even for them.

It took four years for the Earls to put together a syndicate of New York and Boston investors to form the Great Western Power Company; among the group were banking, tobacco, and oil interests. The deal almost fell apart after the 1906 earthquake because the East Coast group thought San Francisco would never recover; it was up to Guy Earl to convince them the disaster would increase demand for electricity. For their troubles the Earl brothers and their associates received $2.5 million in stock. Guy Earl was named VP and later president of Great Western.

This blog is not the place to describe details of how the project was built – that’s covered in some depth in the 1952 corporate hagiography, “P. G. & E. of California” – but there are a few stories too good not to share:

* Work began in 1907, with a camp set up large enough for a thousand workers. When the Bank Panic hit that October, many large construction projects shut down because workers refused to accept the “clearing house certificates” that temporarily were issued by banks instead of money. To keep them on the job, Great Western paid them weekly in gold coin delivered under guard from San Francisco. To get the cash, the secretary of the corporation made nightly tours of New York City theaters, restaurants, hotels and other places where he could trade certificates for gold. Only after he deposited a payroll’s worth of gold at the New York Subtreasury would the government allow the company to withdraw an equivalent amount of gold in San Francisco.

* While construction was underway, three record-book sized transformers were being built to create the high voltage needed for transmission. Each transformer weighted 60 tons – and a third of that weight was just the 5,000 gallons of oil needed to cool and insulate a machine.

* Conflict arose in 1911 when a company supplying power to nearby Oroville began building a small dam across a creek that fed into the north fork of the Feather River. Claiming this “threatened” the water supply needed by a small, temporary power plant Great Western was using during construction of their massive dam, Great Western’s superintendent led a group of workers to the site and “blew it to splinters with dynamite,” according to the official PG&E history. Lawsuits from both sides were fought in the courts for the next six years, and settled only when PG&E bought the Oroville company.

* The Earls had acquired most of Big Meadows, but not all of it; on the western side was the little town of Prattville with homeowners unwilling to sell, some apparently hoping to have lakefront property once water filled the valley and became “Lake Almanor.” According to a local history, most residents were a Fourth of July celebration about a mile away in 1909 when a fire swept the town, destroying most of it. The company was immediately suspected; at the Lake Almanor museum is an old schoolteacher’s handbell with a card reading, “Taken from the Prattville School the day before Great Western Power Company burned the town.” Author of that card was Dr. Fred Davis, who ran the company hospital for injured workers. Some in Prattville still refused to sell and over the next two years Great Western asked the courts to condemn the properties. “Before water flooded the area, the partly burned remains of the old mining town of Prattville were cleared away,” the PG&E book noted, matter-of-factly. Great Western was also compelled to move bodies from the Prattville graveyard to the cemetery in nearby Chester, but the power company neglected to purchase land there for those new graves. The title to the property was only settled recently by PG&E.

* The dam at Lake Almanor was completed in 1914, but Great Western continued operations there from an island called “Nevis.” Working in a building that had been the tavern from another submerged village named Meadow View – abandoned after the rising lake contaminated drinking water supplies – the company eventually moved headquarters to the shore. The little island and old tavern might have made a nice tourist attraction; but as noted in the local history, “Following the established company practice it was burned.”

PG&E finally became the monopoly we know and loathe in 1930 when it acquired Great Western and the San Joaquin Light & Power Company.

Both Concerns are Busy With Men in the Field With Contracts and Petitions

With the view of preventing the Great Western Power Co. from securing sufficient encouragement in the way of signed agreements with local merchants and householders for light and power to warrant them coming into Santa Rosa with their power line the Pacific Gas & Electric Company has a force of three men here seeking to have the local patrons of the company sign contracts for a period of years at the present rates.

It is said the solicitors have met with a cool reception and find very few business men or property holders who desire to place any obstacle in the way of the new company coming here, while most of them desire to assit it in every way even to signing contracts to patronize it.

In fact the solicitors of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company are making no inducement for patrons to sign contracts whatever. For a time before the soliciting for contracts began a representative of the company visited some of the patrons of the company warning them not to sign contracts with the Great Western Power Company, as any rate the latter might make if it entered the field would be met and gone one better by the old company. Many light and power users were not slow in informing the representatives of the P. G. E. Co. that now was the time to offer a reduction if they expected and favors from the patrons.

– Press Democrat, January 25, 1912

Men Are at Work Here Preparing Poles for Installing System in Santa Rosa

[Three executives] of the Great Western Power Company with their wives were visitors to Santa Rosa Sunday. The gentlemen desired to look over the city and took Sunday and brought their wives that all might enjoy the outing. They were greatly pleased with what they saw and returned delighted with the City of Roses.


Monday afternoon a crew of men were put to work in the Southern Pacific yards preparing the poles for the city distributing system, which the new company is to erect in this city for use in lighting the city on and after July 1. Five carloads of 300 poles are on the ground…

– Press Democrat, April 2, 1912
Suburbs Will Have More Attention in the Way of Lighting Under the New Provision

The outlaying district will be well lighted under the new contract with the Great Western Power Co. By the change from arc lights to 100 watt Tungsten lamps with 20 inch porcelain deflected suspended in the middle of the streets there will be sufficient lights to light up the most remote sections of the city.

According to a map just completed for the information of the City Council, there will be 35 lights west of the Northwestern Pacific railroad; 77 south of Santa Rosa Creek; 54 between the creek and Fourth street; 217 on Fourth street from the railroad to McDonald avenue; 34 east of the Southern Pacific railroad and north of Fourth street; 30 on Fifth and the same number on College avenue.

…Every street intersection will have a light, while in the thickly settled and dark sections of the city there will be one in the middle of the block to dispel the gloom. The expense will be no more to the city that the present method. The lights will all be turned on and off from the power station, doing away entirely with the lights burning all day if not turned off by some one with the pole they are on as at present.

– Press Democrat, May 11, 1912

 Railroad Commission Grants P. G. & E. Permission to Reduce its Rates Outside of City Limits

 The Pacific Gas & Electric Company has been granted permission by the State Railroad Commission to reduce its rates outside of Santa Rosa to the same price they are within the city…the company recently reduced its rates within city limits to meet the prices made by the new competitor, the Great Western Power Company, but under the new Public Utilities law could not reduce outside of the city without first receiving permission from the State Commission…

– Press Democrat, July 13, 1912

Complaint has been filed with the State Railroad Commission by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company against the Great Western Power Company, in which the telephone company charges that the power company is considering a poer line from Napa to Sonoma so that it parallels the wires of the telephone company for several miles, the wires of the two companies being within fifty feet of each other. The telephone company charges that its service will be ruined by the close proximity of the high power electrical wires. It is also alleged that the danger to employees and property is greatly increased by the nearness of the power company’s line. The telephone company has filed similar charge against the Sierra and San Francisco Power Company…

 – Santa Rosa Republican, July 10, 1912

 The Great Western Power Company “cut in” its transmission power line last night at the stroke of 10 o’clock for the first time, and for two hours the entire district south of Fourth street was lighted by the new system.

 It was the intention at first to try out the new power line at 4 o’clock so that any defect might be found and remedied before night, but the line and substation could not be made ready…it was striking ten o’clock when the word was given over the telephone to “cut in.”

 Almost with the word the current of 22,000 volts was heard in the transformers and sparks of light were visible at contact points, while a small circuit of incandescent lights in the substation lighted the place brilliantly. The proper tests were made and everything having been found working in proper shape, the street light circuit was switched on and practically half of the new street lights were burning. The lights burned without a flaw for two hours showing that the installation work had been well done…

 …Parts of the city which have never had a street light now are lighted almost as well as some of the best lighted streets have been heretofore. In fact [General Superintendent E. E. Sproul] is of the opinion that Santa Rosa will be the best lighted city of its size on the Pacific Coast when the present system is completed.

 The State Railroad Commission announced its ruling granting the Great Western Power Company the required certificate of convenience and necessity on June 19, just 30 days ago, to enter Napa and Sonoma Counties. Since that date the corporation has erected the transmission lines from the Vallejo straits at Vallejo to Napa, thence to the eastern edge of Petaluma, and thence to Santa Rosa, and erected its complete distributing system in Santa Rosa, as well as installed the transformers and substation on E and First streets.

 In making this system complete for the conduct of business, there have been 1,600 poles erected within Santa Rosa and 100 miles of wire strung, in addition to putting in place 576 street lighting fixtures and providing half of them with the 100-watt lamps. Between Vallejo and Santa Rosa there has been erected 1,000 poles and 1380 miles of transmission lines. To do this in the 30 days has taken some work, and the employees have been busy early and late as well as all day Sundays. They pay roll from July 1 to 15, inclusive, between Schellville and Santa Rosa, including men working in this city reached the total of $12,000.

 One of the features of the construction work and one which has materially aided in the hastening of it, has been the use of eight auto trucks for handling materials and men, both in and out of the city. One of the auto car trucks has been assigned to the Santa Rosa division for permanent use.

– Press Democrat, July 20, 1912
  Great Work is Outline For the Future

  Having secured the necessary permission from the State Railroad Commission, the Pacific Gas & Electric Company has started to expend a very large sum of money, in the neighborhood of $3,500,000, for the purpose of improving and extending its hydroelectric power system which supplies electricity to the inhabitants of not less than thirty counties in the State of California…

  [lengthy generic PR article with no direct application to Sonoma county, adjacent to PG&E advertisement]

 – Santa Rosa Republican, July 22, 1912
 Vote to Continue Struggle With Great Western Power Co.

 Despite the fact that orders were received by the electrical workers of Santa Rosa to return to their employment with the Great Western Power Company, the men held a meeting on Tuesday morning and decided they would continue the present controversy with the company, which, they declare is a lock-out…

 …The recent trouble between the men and the company is founded on the fact that the pay checks did not come as promptly as the men considered they should. The agreement, it is alleged, calls for a pay day not later than the sixth and twenty-first of each month and recently when the 9th day of August rolled around and the money was not forthcoming the men declared that they would take a vacation until they were paid. The men claim the public was demanding money from them for their board and lodging and that they took the vacation to enforce the demand for a prompt pay day…

 …R. W. Garrison, foreman of construction for the Great Western Power Company, and a prominent member of the Electrical Workers’ Union, declared to a Republican representative on Tuesday afternoon that the company was willing at the present to reinstate all of its former employees in their old positions which they held at the time they quit their jobs.

 Mr. Garrison stated that the morning the men quit work they held a meeting and decided that they would not labor until their pay checks arrived. When this decision was reached the men sent a representative to Mr. Garrison to acquaint him with the decision. He thereupon called up Napa, where the paymaster of the company had been paying the employees and ascertained the paymaster had left Napa with the checks for the Santa Rosa boys half an hour previous to that time. Mr. Garrison gave the men this information with the further statement that the checks should arrive in an hour and a half. Garrison announced that if the men wanted to go back to work they could do so, but that if they did not go back at once they need not go back at all. The men, according to Garrison, have construed themselves as being discharged while Garrison claims that the men quit their positions voluntarily by refusing to work.

 The foreman of construction claims that the refusal of the men to wait for their money when it was on the road between Napa and Santa Rosa as unreasonable and that because of the unreasonableness of the matter the district council refused to back up their stand and has ordered them to return to work at once. This order was sent out officially.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, August 13, 1912
 Will Have Conference Over Trouble With Linemen–Linemen in Conference Last Night

 – Press Democrat, August 14, 1912

The Great Western Power Co., is erecting a 12-foot electric sign on the front of the Masonic Temple in which building the company has its Santa Rosa office. The sign reaches from above the entrance to the company’s offices to the top of the fire wall, and will be the largest sign in the city.

The sign stands edge to the building with the letters, “Electric Service” beginning at the top and spelled downward. Between the two words will be the circular trade mark of the corporation, with the letters “G. W. P. Co.” The sign will be extremely attractive, as the lights will run mouse style, and with the flasher in the office any number of variations of lighting will be possible, and it will be changed frequently.

The sign will be discernable the entire length of Fourth street, and will light up the corner brilliantly at night.

 – Press Democrat, September 13, 1912


The Pacific Gas & Electric Company are running an electric power and light line into Bennett Valley from this city to provide residents along that road with light and power. Martin Hoff, Mrs. Peter Segrist, Frank Arnold and Charles Reese will have their homes in the Valley illuminated this week and in a short time. It is expected the company will extend the line out the avenue for the convenience of other people who would like light and power.

 – Press Democrat, September 18, 1912
 Campaign of Education is to Begin Monday

 The Great Western Power Company has adopted its slogan, “Electric Service.” The company will take six days next week to show to the people of Santa Rosa what their idea is concerning electric service. Such a demonstration as they propose to make next week has never been attempted before in the west.

 The company not only believes it is their duty to sell electric current, but also the best appliances for which electricity is used. With this idea the best appliances that have been made in this country have been secured and will be demonstrated to the company’s patron’s next week. The company will sell nothing that it cannot fearlessly stand behind with a guarantee.

 The various appliances, irons, toasters, ranges, fans, oxinators [sic], motors, etc., which will be for sale will be demonstrated morning, noon and night daily during the electrical week, men who know their business being on hand for that purpose.

 Two features are attached to the “electrical service week.” One is that the company will distribute 500 of the best electric irons made to the company’s patrons for 30 days’ trial. If they prove satisfactory the patrons may purchase them, but if they do not want them, they can return them to the company and no charge will be made.

 The other feature will be a boost for a “Brighter Santa Rosa.” This is an important part of the campaign during electrical week. The company will show the merchants of this city the best methods of lighting their stores and windows and the kind of signs they should use.

The Great Western Power Company hopes to make “electrical week” a yearly institution. They have brought to this city from their general offices in San Francisco several of their best electric sign specialists and illuminating engineers. The excellent service the company is going to demonstrate next week is going to be give the company’s patrons all through the year and all time in the future.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, September 21, 1912

Pacific Gas & Electric Is Increasing Its Supply Service in Several Parts of Town

Sherwood Grover, assistant engineer for the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. was a visitor to Santa Rosa yesterday looking over the city and local gas plant of the company with the view of ascertaining what improvements are required to increase the facilities in this city. The company is seeking at all times to enlarge its capacity and better its service. A large amount of new pipe has been laid and many new service connections made in the past few months.

Special attention is now being given to the South side which has increased materially in population and new homes during the past year. A new four inch main is to be laid the entire lenght of Santa Rosa avenue as soon as the material can be secured, while a four inch cast iron pipe will be laid down Sebastopol avenue with laterals in all directions.

 – Press Democrat, October 23, 1912


The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has a large amount of work outlined for Santa Rosa and immediate vicinity. The company is putting about $40,000 in new pipe work also in the way of extending, replacing and enlarging its present pipe lines. In addition a new 100-horsepower boiler is being installed at the plant on First street, which will do away entirely with the smoke from the gas making retorts…

…The new smoke consumer at the plant will do away entirely with the great clouds of smoke seen floating over the city whenever gas is being made. It consists of a series of immense cast iron pipe which will carry the smoke off, cool it and finally by means of a magnetized surren of air take up all the carbon, leaving nothing but a gas to escape, which has no dirt or injurious substance in it. The system is an adoption of that being installed in smelters to carry off the deadly fumes which kills all vegetation in the vicinity for miles around. The iron in this piece of work alone will weigh approximately 13,300 pounds or over nine tons. A large concrete tank forms a part of the plant also.

 – Press Democrat, November 30, 1912

Read More